The mysteries of classical music

It can be difficult to explain to an outsider how a singer, singing for over a whole hour with only two lines of poetry in his repertoire, and several monosyllables which he repeats endlessly, can hold you enraptured. But that is precisely the magic of Indian classical music. It is a curious fact that human beings have the ability to create sounds from their voice which are far larger in variety than any other species on earth. It is a gift from nature, and our classical music gratefully acknowledges this gift, honouring it and exploring all the possibilities inherent in it. If our capacity to create sound is a gift, perhaps every sound we utter should express the exaltedness of our position in nature, conferred upon by this gift. And that is precisely what Indian classical music tries to do.

Sound is the manifest of the unmanifest, the uttered to the unuttered, the revelation of that which is purely a mystery. Indian classical music can never be divorced from this sense of mystery. All the singing that we hear is, as if, only the images on the surface of an ocean that is deep and unfathomable, and whose beauty can only be known by what appears on the surface. Every swara, every bandish, every raga expresses something far more than what the ear hears. The heart knows that more exists, and therein lies the criterion for discerning an accomplished artist from an unaccomplished one. It is not virtuosity, not the strength of one’s voice, not the duration for which one can hold a note, but simply the openness of the voice to this unfathomable realm that makes a good artist.

On a social level, this music, especially in its northern form, bears testimony to our shared, pluralistic culture. Hindu masters are called pandits, and Muslim masters ustads. But a pandit may be the teacher of one who later becomes an ustad, and the other way round. The much loved stories of classical lore include a teenage Ravi Shankar going to live with Ustad Alauddin Khan, learning the sitar from him, addressing him as baba, just like the ustad’s own children did, and even marrying his daughter. After a decade of strict training which included many harsh punishments, Ravi Shankar emerges as the man we know by that name today. In the years to come, he would be Pandit Ravi Shankar, and would team up with another ustad, Allah Rakkha Khan, the tabla player, to introduce our music to the west. And we have also heard several Muslim singers sing with all their soul to Krishna. Whether it is Ustad Rashid Khan meditatively elaborating ‘vaishnav jan to’ or his grand-uncle Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan elaborating a jhoola – a genre of songs sung for Krishna by the women who fall in love with him, no theological problems about crossing religious boundaries arise. The singer and the listener are both in touch with a level of reality where the  sacred is experienced and not merely known, and hence, the distinctions of creed are no more relevant.

This beautiful rendition of Raag Maanj Khamaaj by Prabha Atre expresses some of what is best about India’s classical music. The purity that reflects on the singer’s face also finds a presence in her singing.


~ by tdcatss on October 8, 2014.

2 Responses to “The mysteries of classical music”

  1. Very well written. Indian Classical Music is very special and very unique. It has words but it is much more than just words. Rather, it is beyond words.!

  2. Thank you! :)

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